Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Running Partner - the essential element

I met him skiing on Little Dipper at Heavenly Ski Resort in Tahoe several years ago.  His style in the moguls is unmistakable.  He’s tall and lean and skis very upright and “stacked”, with great posture and alignment.  His nickname is “smiley Ron”.  His broad smile reveals gleaming white teeth under a shortly trimmed grey mustache framed usually with grey stubble.  He’s always smiling when he skis.  I think he’s gritting his teeth.  His skiing is remarkably smooth yet fast and ambitious through the deepest and steepest of moguls.  He’s one of the best mogul skiers on the hill.  Amazingly, Ron Nageotte's youthful energy hardly reflects the 62 years he's been around.

Ron tears it up on Little Dipper - ChiSkiing!

I had always admired him from a distance believing that I wasn’t even on the same scale as he as a mogul skier.  Then one day in 2010 on Little Dipper, I overheard him say that he had just run a 50K the day before!  Intrigued, I got up the courage to talk to him about it.  It’s not often that you meet an ultrarunner who skis, too.  Ron was gracious and humble about his experience and talking with him made me remember when I had once run long distances.

Fast forward another 8 months and I had learned ChiRunning, was running long and injury free, and was well on my way to becoming a Certified Instructor in ChiRunning and ChiWalking. 

The 2011 skiing season was one of the most extraordinary for the Sierras in years.  There were so many powder days that mogul skiing was merely a distraction for days when there wasn’t deep powder.  But mid January was the start of a dry spell that lasted about 6 weeks and as the trails dried up, running became the focus.  I began to run with the Tahoe Mountain Milers where Ron introduced me to the group and their running routes which included the Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon course.  It was somewhere during that time that I learned that Ron had registered for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile in July 2011.  I boldly offered my assistance to him as a pacer.  I barely knew him, but somehow realized that pacing him could help me to safely and confidently re-enter the running and racing world.  I had paced others before in big races so I knew I could do that.  But what really intrigued me about Ron was his incredibly optimistic attitude about life, running, and working through pain and adversity.  I wanted to learn how to do that.  How did he smile all the time?

Ron’s ability to run through physical pain is quite remarkable.  Twenty years ago, after a serious ski accident that involved a tree, a serious head injury and a close brush with death, Ron continues to deal with serious arthritis and chronic pain in his back.   Further, severe iliotibial band syndrome sidelined his running for years and only resolved with major surgery.  He discovered ChiRunning several years ago and that has helped his running considerably.  He has persisted through the physical challenges, but none probably as great as the challenge that he dealt with when his son died tragically in 2004.  Eric was only 18 and one of the most gifted and promising mogul skiers in the U.S.  Ironically, it was Eric at the age of 5 who ensured that Ron received timely care when he hit that tree 20 years ago. "He saved my life that day," Ron told the Tribune after Eric’s death. "I only wish I could have been there to save his.”  

Ron and his wife, Carol used their grief and the memory of Eric’s short but remarkable life to create a memorial fund benefitting young freestyle skiers through the Heavenly Ski & Snowboard Foundation.  TheEric Nageotte-Lowe Memorial Snowshoe 5K benefits the foundation and is held each February at Camp Richardson in South Lake Tahoe. Other freestyle and mogul events are held throughout the year as fundraisers for the foundation.  Currently, some of the top freestyle skiers in the country are funded through it.

Fast forward to July, 2011 and Ron accomplished a long sought after goal of finishing a 100 mile trail race.  The Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile run is a grueling event.  I paced him for 12 hours throughout the night from mile 50 to 80.  In the early hours of the morning, from about 2 to 6 am, Ron demonstrated his remarkable ability to deal with adversity.  His back pain had become intense and every 20 minutes or so, he would ask me to massage both sides of his spine.  Our pace had dropped to about 4 miles per hour, but he continued to run the downhills and flats despite his pain and the darkness of the Tahoe forest.  He rarely spoke except to say that it really hurt a lot, his voice flat, but not whining.  I kept waiting for him to tell me he wanted to stop, lie down, to sleep.  His face showed fatigue, but an intense determination.  There was no sign of defeat or fear.

A few months later, in October, 2011, Ron and I completed the Rock ‘N River 50 Mile race.  It was my first 50 mile attempt.  Success would not have been possible without Ron’s encouragement, and Carol’s, my dad and Dave’s, aid station support.  Somewhere in the last 10 miles of that run, I remember Ron laughingly asking me if I was hurting yet.  Duh. “It feels like someone’s hammering on my quads with a baseball bat every time I take a step.”  Nice analogy, Ron.  He chuckled more, grinned widely with those big white teeth of his and said, “oh and it’ll only get worse.”  Great, I thought.  I’m so inspired.  Typical Ron comment. And that smile again.

Classic Ron smile after finishing second in his age group at the Rock 'N River 50 Mile
Now it’s 2012 and a very dry winter has left us with some very good trail running conditions.  Our snow skiing is minimally satisfying.  It’s February 8 and if it wasn’t for snowmaking we wouldn’t be skiing at all.  Running training on the other hand, is in full swing.  I’m registered for the Way Too Cool 50K on March 10 and the American River 50 Mile on April 7, my 53rd birthday.  Ron helped me create my training plan last month at a Christmas party and it includes skiing as cross training, and running on the same day.  He says that after skiing moguls all day and then running for an hour afterwards is like you did a 20 miler that day.  Hmmm.  Yes, it definitely felt that way last week!

To finish this long story up and get to the point, I write this as both an acknowledgement of and thanks to a great man, friend and training partner, but also to demonstrate the value of finding the right person to run and train with.  Here is what I’ve learned about what makes a great training partner:

  • Having the same pace and rhythm when running together.  It’s critical to be able to run long distances and not feel pressured to run fast or slow.  Agreeing to a pace before the run is important so that goals of both people can be met.
  • Being able to incorporate your runs together into your own training plan, i.e. time of day, time of week, distance and speed.
  • Agreeing to the type of run before you go – trails, roads, hills, flat, speed, or long slow distance.
  • Encouraging each other.  Staying positive during rough spots.
  • Being comfortable with each other during long periods of running silence, but also being able to put your mind on audio and chat about life. 
  • Being comfortable enough to ask for help, to be “real” during the tough times that inevitably happen during many hours of running.
  • Being willing to learn from each other.
After running a year with him, I recognize how blessed I am that I have found the essential element for successful training - my running partner, Ron.  I'm thankful that Ron and I have enjoyed success in our running lives in 2011 as a result.  I’m looking forward to 2012 being as successful and joyous as we both reach for new challenges in the coming racing season! 

And may you, my friend, find a running partner who enhances your running life just as Ron has done mine.

If you are blessed to have a running partner that you share that special bond with, I'd like to hear about it!